Source: Harper’s Weekly – May 9, 1863, http://www.sonofthesouth.net/leefoundation/civil-war/1863/may/runaway-slaves.htm
An earlier edition of Civil War Emancipation dealt with the phenomenon of slaves that had escaped to federal lines journeying back into rebel held territory to let family and friends know that they would become free once they arrived where Union forces held sway. Such a trip could be dangerous because the Confederate Army did not take kindly to these missionaries of freedom, especially if they were armed, and apparently executed some of them when such unfortunates fell into their hands.
Yet the danger did not stop the trips into Confederate territory. Such was the testimony of Capt. C. B. Wilder, Superintendent of Contrabands at Fortress Monroe, Virginia, on May 9, 1863, before the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission. The testimony transcript records:
Q In your opinion would a change in our policy which would cause them to be treated with fairness, their wages punctually paid and employment furnished them in the army, become known and would it have any effect upon others in slavery?
A Yes–Thousands upon Thousands. I went to Suffolk a short time ago to enquire into the state of things there–for I found I could not get any foot hold to make things work there, through the Commanding General, and I went to the Provost Marshall and all hands–and the colored people actually sent a deputation to me one morning before I was up to know if we put black men in irons and sent them off to Cuba to be sold or set them at work and put balls on their legs and whipped them, just as in slavery; because that was the story up there, and they were frightened and didn’t know what to do. When I got at the feelings of these people I found they were not afraid of the slaveholders. They said there was nobody on the plantations but women and they were not afraid of them One woman came through 200 miles in Men’s clothes. The most valuable information we recieved in regard to the Merrimack and the operations of the rebels came from the colored people and they got no credit for it. I found hundreds who had left their wives and families behind. I asked them “Why did you come away and leave them there?” and I found they had heard these stories, and wanted to come and see how it was. “I am going back again after my wife” some of them have said “When I have earned a little money” What as far as that?” “Yes” and I have had them come to me to borrow money, or to get their pay, if they had earned a months wages, and to get passes. “I am going for my family” they say. “Are you not afraid to risk it?” “No I know the Way” Colored men will help colored men and they will work along the by paths and get through. In that way I have known quite a number who have gone up from time to time in the neighborhood of Richmond and several have brought back their families; some I have never heard from. As I was saying they do not feel afraid now. The white people have nearly all gone, the blood hounds are not there now to hunt them and they are not afraid, before they were afraid to stir. There are hundreds of negroes at Williamsburgh with their families working for nothing. They would not get pay here and they had rather stay where they are. “We are not afraid of being carried back” a great many have told us and “if we are, we can get away again” Now that they are getting their eyes open they are coming in. Fifty came this morning from Yorktown who followed Stoneman’s Cavalry when they returned from their raid. The officers reported to their Quartermaster that they had so many horses and fifty or sixty negroes. “What did you bring them for” “Why they followed us and we could not stop them.” I asked one of the men about it and he said they would leave their work in the field as soon as they found the Soldiers were Union men and follow them sometimes without hat or coat. They would take best horse they could get and every where they rode they would take fresh horses, leave the old ones and follow on and so they came in. I have questioned a great many of them and they do not feel much afraid; and there are a great many courageous fellows who have come from long distances in rebeldom. Some men who came here from North Carolina, knew all about the [Emancipation] Proclammation and they started on the belief in it; but they had heard these stories and they wanted to know how it was. Well, I gave them the evidence and I have no doubt their friends will hear of it. Within the last two or three months the rebel guards have been doubled on the line …
So slaves within at least 200 miles of Fortress Monroe were making their way there to become free, and some returned home to spread the good news. While their journeys were not without risk, the war had caused the slave patrol system in Virginia largely to breakdown, since by that time nearly all the men who would have served in the patrols were gone to serve in the Confederate Army. The Confederates were detailing men to try to stop the exodus, but to judge from the slaves apparent confidence relating their escapes to Capt. Wilder, the effort was not terribly effect.
Indeed, Wilder’s testimony indicates, by Spring 1863, the greatest threat to the freedom of escaped slaves in Virginia came not from the Confederate Army but ironically from corrupt Union soldiers that for a price would cooperate with slaveholders seeking to recover their slaves. The captain complained that troops in the 99th New York Infantry “between Norfolk and Suffolk have caught hundreds of fugitives and got pay for them. . . . The masters will come in to Suffolk in the day time and with the help of some of the 99th carry off their fugitives and by and by smuggle them across the lines and the soldier will get his $20. or $50.” Clearly, despite the Emancipation Proclamation, and a law by then a year old, specifically prohibiting the Union Army personnel from cooperating in the return of slaves to their owners, some northern troops were willing to help planters, in all likelihood rebels, recover their slaves.
Yet the slaves themselves were increasingly confident that even when that happened or they were caught on the way to Union lines, all they need do is wait for another opportunity to flee to Union lines which would come apparently soon enough. So despite crooked Union soldiers ready to help re-enslave escaped slaves, the missionaries of freedom were spreading the word that increasingly slavery in Virginia could not be enforced and that probably sooner rather later, slaves that fled would find freedom in Union-controlled territory.